Comment: Why I made an It Gets Better video on being gay and Jewish
On Friday afternoon, I posted a video to YouTube. It was a historic moment for me because I haven’t actually posted very much on there before but also it was because for the first time officially, I shared my coming out story with the Channel 4 News audience and the wider world. The video I posted was to form part of the ‘It Gets Better’ campaign.
The campaign has been running for some time and has even been the subject of a major television advertising campaign for Google. Launched by the journalist Dan Savage, it began as a video he posted in response to a growing number of teenagers in the United States who were taking their own lives after being homophobicly bullied. The point of the campaign was to tell young people that ”it gets better”. Public figures ranging from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama to David Cameron have given messages of hope to young people.
I first started the process of coming out when I was 15, telling just my mother first and asking her to keep it a secret (mums always know, or so they say). When I started a new school, JFS, an Orthodox Jewish school in North London for sixth form, I decided that I would tell most of the new friends that I made that I mainly liked boys.
I was lucky to never really get picked on for my sexuality. Some students were fascinated by someone being quite so open, but I guess I thought I had nothing to lose – I clearly made friends with people who didn’t care about my sexuality. But back then there was still Section 28, which more or less meant homosexuality wasn’t discussed in the classroom. As you hear in my video, my tale was rather simple, I didn’t get bullied, I didn’t sit through lessons where I was told that my sexuality was wrong, I didn’t get rejected by my family and everyone lived happily ever after. But not everyone is so lucky, particularly people who like me come from a strong faith background.
I’ve got to say that one way I came to terms with coming out was that I sort of lost a bit of my Jewish identity. But over recent years, I’ve discovered that there are lots of gay Jewish people and I’ve become involved in the formation of Keshet UK, the national forum for LGBT Jews. Through this role, I felt encouraged to post an ‘It Gets Better’ video and effectively use my very public profile on television to offer a message of support and comfort to other people who come from a similar background as me. As I say in my video, “some young people are still being told that homosexuality is a choice, not something you can’t help. In some religious institutions young people are being told about so called reparative therapy for same sex attraction. In other words, courses and treatments to turn you straight.”
The sorts of treatments ”gay cure” centres offer is, apparently, akin to the treatments forced upon people convicted of being homosexual in Britain during some of the last century. I know friends who voluntarily tried and failed to turn straight and wasted a lot of money in the process. But when I heard about these courses being suggested to young people within an education environment, and that there had unfortunately been incidents of self-harm within the Jewish community as a result of them, I felt the need to do something.
As a correspondent on Channel 4 News, I have a serious obligation to report impartially on the stories that I cover on television. In a sense you – the audience – aren’t supposed to know what I think about a whole array of subjects, particularly when they verge on the political. But I felt that on this occasion, my impartiality wasn’t something that would be jeopardised because my views on homosexuality are pretty well-known already. I founded PinkNews.co.uk, the most-read gay publication in Europe and I often re-tweet/ share on Facebook stories and issues that affect the LGBT community.
I felt that the video would have a lot more impact if it was recorded in the Channel 4 newsroom. The programme director said he’d get the camera and lights setup while I got myself together. I’d imagined that I’d do it down the far end of the newsroom, perched on an unoccupied collection of desks. When I came back into the newsroom, I saw that he’d set everything up dead in the centre of the room, right in front of the news desk where Krishnan, Jon and Cathy sit. So while preparing myself, I thought only about the eventual YouTube viewers, I didn’t think that I would also be recounting my coming out story to my colleagues. I’d be talking to them as well about a nasty comment about gay people that my Dad once said and my feelings of being twice blessed, gay and Jewish. I’ve got to say that was the most nerve-wracking thing of all.
Once I watched back the video, I realised it would have some impact. It’s the thing I’m most proud of making during the five-and-a -half years that I’ve been at Channel 4 News because it’s from the heart. It’s not the best delivered piece to camera I’ve ever recorded or the best use of language. But it really means something to me. The personal connection is something that very rarely happens with news stories I produce.
The response has been phenomenal. Major figures ranging from Sarah Brown (the wife of the former prime minister, Gordon Brown) to Stephen Fry have shared the video. But it’s the amazing messages that I have received that mean the most. From young people, on the verge of coming out who now know who to contact for support, to parents who like mine are proud to have openly lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered children. I’m emotionally drained from having read their stories, but in a good way.
The response that I’ve received has shown me the power of social media for good. I hope that the video will continue to provide a message of hope to young people from all faith backgrounds and none that coming out need not be the end of the world, it’s just about being honest with that they love, maybe for the first time in years. And of course, that things get better.
This post first appeared on Benjamin Cohen’s Channel 4 News blog.
Benjamin is the Technology Correspondent for Channel 4 News.